Regardless of your feelings about The Hobbit trilogy, the sheer scope of Peter Jackson’s six film exploration of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mythos is the kind of thing we’re unlikely to ever see attempted again. Unlike the open-ended narratives of superhero films, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies have definite resolutions. There’s even a Lord of the Rings TV series in the works over at Amazon right now, although that will deal primarily with characters we didn’t meet in these films.
So, in celebration of fourteen years of Peter Jackson bringing the most seminal works of fantasy fiction to life, we look at our (many) favorite moments from the two trilogies.
The Fellowship of the Ring
Battle of Mt. Doom/Sauron’s Intro
There’s considerable heavy lifting that needs to be done in order to tell Sauron’s origin and get the necessary exposition out of the way to set up the general Middle-Earth mythology at the start of Fellowship of the Ring. It’s handled elegantly, with plenty of reverence and just the right touch of spectacle. Watching Sauron annihilate soldiers by the half-dozen with each swing before getting his digits severed was a breathtaking moment when first beheld, and the fact that these opening moments also managed to summarize key events from The Hobbit (no jokes, please) is all the more impressive.
Fellowship of the Ring is such a perfect film that it’s tough to not just make this into a scene-by-scene triptych. But in this case, the introduction of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is so important. If this first on-screen interaction between two of the key players of the films, separated by height, species, age, and potential power, didn’t work on every imaginable level, then the entire trilogy would be built on sand.
Fortunately, from the moment Ian McKellen appears on screen there is no doubt that he is indeed Gandalf the Grey, brought to life in live action for the first time, and perfectly embodied.
Gandalf Goes Scary on Bilbo
Gandalf the Grey really does seem to live up to his name for most of Fellowship’s first act. With his long flowing beard of silver, and his absent-mindedness when he meets Frodo with a feeble excuse for his tardiness, this is a big man with a big heart. Thus when it finally runs cold, on dear old friend Bilbo no less, it’s one of the most frightening moments of the trilogy. Forget Saruman and Sauron. Hearing Bag End creak and twist in the shadows cast by Ian McKellen’s mere annoyance is the stuff of nightmares.
“Do not take me for some conjuror of cheap tricks!” Dear Elrond, we don’t! Take the ring; don’t hurt us, just take the ring!
Almost Had Him
The beauty of Fellowship of the Ring is how classical its approach seems compared to the rest of the Jackson/Tolkien affairs. Lacking the CGI windswept battles of the rest of its trilogy, or the overabundance of 48fps and blue screen wizardry of The Hobbit Trilogy, this first 35mm feels, frankly, old fashioned. It even turns to animation for one of its best moments involving Elijah Wood and a stunt guy in an elaborate costume.
Emulating a famous scene from the 1978 Ralph Bakshi The Lord of the Rings, a Ringwraith corners Frodo and his companions on the side of the road. As Merry, Pip, and Sam struggle to ignore all the nasty spiders and creepy crawlies running away from the wraith, Frodo is having his first true battle of temptation with the ring. At this point, it isn’t exhausting to witness struggle; it’s terrifying, much like the contorted Dutch angle staring up at this grim reaper.
This doesn’t need much explaining. Pippin takes a moment to illustrate hobbit dining habits to a less than interested Strider. “We’ve had one breakfast, yes, but what about second breakfast?” Aye, that sounds as delightful as afternoon tea, which stateside is as much a fantasy as everything else in these films!
You’d better make your saving throws, because Gandalf and Saruman are having a throwdown. The revelation that Saruman is a dick is the cinematic equivalent of Shawn Michaels kicking Marty Jannetty through a barbershop window. Well, not quite… Nobody expected Christopher Lee to be playing someone with noble intentions, did they? But any nerd worth their 12-sided dice got a little shiver watching these two go at it, even if ol’ Gandalf ended up on the wrong end of the staff.
Strider Takes on the Ringwraiths
For a series that occasionally has to deal with macho detractors howling about how in touch with their feelings everyone is, there are plenty of moments of sheer badassery on display. Watching Strider throw the Ringwraiths a beating while Howard Shore’s music, which had been fairly reflective until it takes on a more heroic tone, swells around him is plenty of fun… but it’s the grace and style he does it with that really drives it all home.
The “torch right to the face” is a nice touch.
An Arwen Ride Along
As masterfully important as J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel is, at the end of the day, Lord of the Rings is not flawless. In addition to having the two potential loves of Aragorn’s life (also the only major female characters in the story) share names so similar that it’s befuddled scholars for generations, the theoretically more important of the two, Arwen Undomiel, never even shows up until the end of Return of the King for a wedding and an infuriating appendix-stuffed back story.
So, Peter Jackson’s intuition to beef up her role was the right one, albeit in this boy’s club narrative, especially in a movie titled Fellowship of the Ring, there is only so much he could fiddle with. However, for this brief and stunning set-piece, he found magnificence, as well as one of the most thrilling sequences of the film. What especially heightens it in retrospect is how low-tech this chase turned out to be in contrast to the rest of the trilogy.
Arwen comes like a true elfin dream into Frodo’s reality and then saves him from a stampeding Nazgul. Simply nine guys on black horses and one woman (or she-elf) on another riding through the New Zealand countryside, it’s instantly visceral and swiftly heart-stopping under Howard Shore’s pounding score. The antithesis of much of Lord of the Rings, it’s a woman doing something important in an action sequence that is blessedly brief and reliant mostly on practical effects, which makes the digital water horses all the better when they do show up.
One Does Not Simply Walk into Mordor
It became a meme for a reason, and Sean Bean is awesome. He gives Boromir more sympathy and charisma in this moment than dozens of pages devoted to this man in the book.
While Bilbo and Frodo’s reunion is wonderfully played by both Elijah Wood and Ian Holm, communicating a genuine affection between these two characters and the sadness that comes with seeing your loved ones age, that brief moment when Bilbo turns while in the presence of “his old ring” was worth a jump on the first viewing, and may still give you a quick start if you’ve forgotten it’s there.
It’s the fangs…
Epic Casting Call Walk
Rarely has ridiculously posed strutting seemed so awesome and so perfect. In the closest to a Dungeons and Dragons movie moment that you’re likely to ever get (except, you know, cool) the entire Fellowship of the Ring strolls up a mountain pass outside Rivendelle with the kind of self-aware badassery usually reserved for The Right Stuff clips. As Howard Shore’s music swells, so does the audience instantly caring about this band of plucky heroes. It also gives them each a moment to shine within the span of a few seconds, the likes of which a dozen dwarves never enjoyed.
The Bridge of Khazad-Dum
Really, the entire Mines of Moria sequence is masterful. Once they’re in, the tension and quiet mount to almost unbearable levels until the tussle with the Cave Troll (one must love Sean Bean’s exasperated, “they have a cave troll”), and then, well… the Balrog shows up. Having drained the formerly lush setting of all color with the snowstorm on the mountain, the nighttime exterior of the mines, and the blue-grey darkness of the mines themselves, it’s ominous when the orange flames begin to rise. Once that Balrog and his flaming whip make the big entrance, you know you’ve reached the high point of the film, if not the entire genre.
“You shall not pass,” may as well refer to anyone else who thinks they’ll ever get a wizard taking on a fire demon as right as this ever again.
After Gandalf’s Death
“You shall not pass!” is arguably the most iconic and intense moment in the entire Tolkien oeuvre. But it’s so good that an equally powerful sequence is often overlooked: The aftermath. Following Gandalf’s fall into darkness, the rest of the Fellowship is ready to descend into despair. On a rocky New Zealand hillside, all of the actors are allowed to mark the various stages of grief with nuance, grace, and even silence. Save for Aragorn and Boromir’s arguing, the tears are silently drowned out by the heart-wrenchingly solitary use of Howard Shore’s backend for “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum.”
Aragorn must take on the role of leader so he is allowed to talk over the music, but there’s no need in regards to Frodo. His grief is too full to even cry or make a noise. In fact, he’s already one footstep removed from the whole Fellowship.
“All shall love me and despair!”
The test of Galadriel is a haunting, scary sequence. Masterfully played by Cate Blanchett, Galadriel’s sudden transformation from a figure of beauty and grace to one of pure power and terror might just be the best visual representation of the ancient forces at play in Middle-Earth in the entire saga. This is a fictional world that has been fully realized since long before you started watching, and the viewer may as well be Frodo, helpless in the face of Galadriel’s fury.
Aragorn Refuses the Ring
An uncomplicated moment, it’s also a special one. By the end of Fellowship, Frodo has embarked on his many hours of pity and paranoia, and it got its first reinforcement due to Boromir’s weakness. But Aragorn proves he is indeed a cut above most men, including his countrymen. After our own species coming up so short for three hours, it is nice to see its once and future monarch is of greater divine stuff.
And the empathy in Viggo Mortensen’s eyes is so truly sorrowful that you can forget about Tolkien; why can’t Aragorn come with Frodo? But then, like a true badass, it’s gone and his sword is drawn as he single-handedly faces down a horde of Uruk-hai!
Boromir Finds His King
Strangely, death for good guys in Tolkien’s world is almost unheard of. Thus the few surprising times the heroes are actually punished seems numbingly unfair. Boromir was the weakest of the Fellowship, and he indeed hastened its dissolution when he gave in to the ring’s seduction. Nonetheless, he found atonement when he valiantly fought to save Merry and Pippin, two Halflings that this one-time arrogant diplomat from Gondor would have likely not even noticed if not for his quest.
While he fails, it is only because of the cowardly actions of an Uruk-hai behind a bow and arrow from a distance (only Legolas can get away with that!). His final moments with Aragorn miraculously avoids feeling schmaltzy or trite. He has simply in his last moments found his captain, his brother, and his king.
Don’t Forget Sam
And speaking of sequences that risk descending into schmaltz, Sam would literally drown before abandoning Mr. Frodo on their quest. It is a sequence that once again is buoyed by Howard Shore’s elegant instrumentations, channeling every pastoral soundscape imaginable. However, after three hours of nigh death and despair for these two hobbits, seeing them genuinely overjoyed to not be alone is a relief for all involved, including us. “I’m going to Mordor alone.” “Of course you are, and I’m coming with you!”
The Two Towers
Helicopter Montage Shots!
Guess what? Peter Jackson had a helicopter while making The Two Towers and he made sure that he got his money’s worth out of it! The beginning (at least of the Aragorn storyline), of The Two Towers is practically nothing but five minutes of sweeping helicopter shots cut via montage with some great sunset photography by Andrew Lesnie. Our three heroes banter, run, and gallop across long distances (a dwarf’s mortal enemy!). It’s indulgent, epic, and wonderfully beautiful. It’s Lord of the Rings in a nutshell.
“Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!”
For movies that rack up the body count the way these do, there’s surprisingly little actual blood. And not that there’s ever any doubt which side the assorted orcs, goblins, or trolls are on, watching the Uruk-hai devour a fellow orc, with entrails flying and all felt like a nod to Peter Jackson’s horror roots, raising an uncomfortable giggle among audiences.
If you were to ask fans what visual they were most curious about seeing realized on screen or the first time before these films were released, there’s a good chance that Treebeard and the Ents would have been high on a lot of lists. Why? Because who wouldn’t want to see giant talking trees in live-action?
“I am on nobody’s side, because nobody is on mine,” is a matter-of-fact but still heartbreaking utterance by Treebeard, voiced by Gimli himself, John Rhys-Davies.
Enter…Gandalf the White!
Gandalf the Grey? No, you fools. This is Gandalf the White. Deliberately obscured to make audiences feel like our heroes have stumbled across Saruman in the forest, Gandalf’s second coming is a pleasant surprise for audiences unfamiliar with the books, deepens the mystery as to Gandalf’s true nature (and the extent of the power he wields), and has just the right hint of Judeo-Christian imagery to add to the overall mythic quality of the tale.
Gollum and Smeagol: A Conversation
Gollum is easily the greatest all-CGI creation to date. While Andy Serkis has seen the art form of motion-capture grow, often with him at the center in King Kong and the Planet of the Apes reboots, it never has felt as necessary or as profound as with making this little bastard come to life. The gruesomeness of that existence is brought to the fore when Gollum reveals he is actually a split personality, talking between himself and Smeagol.
Using the same alternating “over the shoulder” cross-cuts that Sam Raimi utilized to depict Norman Osborn’s insanity in Spider-Man that same year, Peter Jackson and Serkis still manage to create something far more unique and unnerving. Two fully realized animated personalities who are simultaneously hilarious and pathetic…and very dangerous.
The age-old meme can probably explain why this is hilarious better than I can. Boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick them in a stew. Stupid fat hobbitses. You get the idea.
An Edoras Welcome
There are plenty of castles and breathtaking vistas in Lord of the Rings, but one that is often overlooked is Edoras. Not as majestic as the more CGI-reliant Rivendell or as imposingly regal as Minas Tirith, this monument to the horselords of Rohan is still my favorite. This is possibly because most of the exterior is a real set built on a hill that could only be reached via chopper; its location in the wild outreaches of New Zealand adds all the more to its wonder to the very Northern European flourishes of Shore’s score.
And at Edoras’ darkest hour, Eowyn has seemingly lost all hope for her king when she exists the Great Hall and sees… the heroes approach. As a forgotten flag falls to the breeze before Aragorn, Gandalf, and the rest, the last vestige of Rohan’s nobility has seemingly vanished when Gondor’s absent king appears. The faded grandeur echoing in the score with the billowing portraits of Edoras’ real-life scale makes for a knockout of an introduction to this new location.
The exorcism of King Theoden
We’ve already watched Ian McKellen ride a Balrog all the way down like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, and witnessed his resurrection as Gandalf the White. When Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn are forced to disarm at the gates of Theoden’s throne room, Gandalf, who for all intents and purposes just rose from the dead, adopts the persona of a doddering old man. “You wouldn’t part an old man from his walking stick…”
It’s wonderfully underplayed by McKellen, under mounds of makeup and a fake beard, and he shifts from powerful wizard to confused elder back to even more powerful wizard in the space of minutes. Nobody else could have done this.
Eowyn is another female character who needed a cinematic shot in the arm to keep these movies from being a total brodown from start to finish. Eowyn’s heroism at Pelennor Fields is played up in the third film, but it’s one of her earliest conversations with Aragorn, where Miranda Otto utters that “those without swords can still die upon them,” where we first get an indication of the strength of her character.
Legolas Mounts a Horse like a BAMF
Legolas is not necessarily the richest character in Tolkien’s literature. He is neither a savior of Man, with all the Judeo-Christian implications therein, like his companion Aragorn, nor does he have the moral righteousness shaded with slight ambiguity like Gandalf. He’s not even a hobbit. However, Peter Jackson does well to give second bananas Legolas and Gimli at least a few great moments each to shine, particularly in The Two Towers. Say what you will about this elfin hero, but he sure knows how to jump onto a horse.
The fact that this boss move is in the background of wide shot, and not even the focus of Jackson’s composition, makes it even more boss.
Saruman’s Mussollini moment
“But my lord, there is no such force.”
Wrong. There are plenty of chilling Saruman moments, which is impressive considering how rarely he leaves the tower at Isengard. Sure, it helps that he’s played by Christopher Lee, but the moment when he addresses thousands of assembled Uruk-hai is the first moment in the trilogy when we fully appreciate the scope of the threat posed to the world. The World War II imagery is undeniable.
“Or would you like for me to find you a box?”
Another terrific moment between Legolas and Gimli is so fleeting that it’s a wonder Jackson didn’t extend it for 10 minutes. Thank goodness that he didn’t, because seeing these two racist Middle-earth critters find common ground while on the battlefield of Helm’s Deep is the hour-long fight’s only source of much needed levity. Live or die, these two need to get a drink when it’s all over.
Legolas and the Shield Surfboard
Not every moment in these movies has to be fraught with portent and symbolism. Sometimes a shield is just a shield, except, of course, when it’s a surfboard. Legolas does Errol Flynn one better as he shoots down the stairs, firing arrows all the way…
Sean Bean’s “For Gondor!” speech
Just in case you were under the impression that Boromir’s weakness was anything more than just an expression of his inherent humanity that anyone (except maybe Aragorn) could fall prey to, we get this lovely flashback with Boromir in a celebratory mood, rallying the troops after a small victory. Every watt of Sean Bean’s star power and charisma is on display here, even though it ends up being at the expense of Faramir because of their crazy dad.
The arrival of the Elves
Yeah, yeah, yeah… we know. The elves didn’t come to the rescue at Helm’s Deep in the books… but so what? Their triumphant arrival here is a fine movie moment, and even the most ardent Tolkien scholars would have to admit that, right?
Théoden’s Last Ride
Gandalf has one of the greatest rescues in movie history when he appears with the dawn above the eastern hill overlooking Helms Deep. However, the moment before such chivalry arguably contains more heroism since Théoden, Aragorn, and all the rest believe they’re headed to their deaths. With Helm’s Deep overrun by Uruk-hai and Orcs, all hope seems lost.
So with swelling Shore orchestrations, Gimli summons their last ride into the red dawn. It’s a brief moment of suicidal glory that plays like the finale of a medieval poem. Of course, it’s great Gandalf saved them too, but this is a triumphant death if ever there was one.
Sam tells Faramir what’s up.
There are two moments in The Two Towers when Samwise shows that he’s the heart of the whole quest. We’ll get to the other one in a minute. But this one, when Frodo and Sam have been captured by Faramir and his crew, is Sam’s “you can’t handle the truth” moment. Outnumbered and unsure of their intentions, especially when they learn that Faramir is the brother of the same man who nearly betrayed Frodo for the Ring, Sam has no trouble speaking his mind and putting Faramir in his place.
The Ents attack Isengard
It took plenty of convincing, but the Ents did eventually see the benefit in taking up for the world of men. This may not be as impressive a cinematic feat as the Battle of Helm’s Deep, nor does it carry the weight of scenes played by actors of Ian McKellen or Bernard Hill’s caliber, but it might just be the most explicitly fairy tale moment of the trilogy thus far. Giant, talking trees throwing boulders at the army of an evil white wizard? We’ll take this every time…
“There is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
Remember how we said there are two moments when Sam becomes the heart of this film? Well, this is the other one. Of all the wonderfully humanistic moments in these stories, this is the one that most communicates a worldview that is not quite as simple as Sam might be. But for a few minutes, Sam is Winston Churchill, the best coach you ever had at halftime in a close game, and a preacher that might actually make you want to find religion. The words may be Tolkien’s, but it’s Sean Astin who makes you believe them.
Return of the King
The Origin of Gollum
What most of Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies are quite good at doing is getting a whole lot of heavy lifting done in a relatively short span of time. The origin of Gollum, wisely saved for this final act, is one of those times. For most audience members, it’s the first look we got at the brilliant Andy Serkis, unadorned by digital trickery. But watching Smeagol celebrate his birthday in, shall we say, memorable fashion, was a perfect way to drive home the tragedy of Gollum that the previous film had so expertly set up.
The Death of Saruman
In general, we agree that the theatrical cuts of these films are superior to the extended editions. That being said, as far as indulgent extended editions go, Tolkien fans really can’t go wrong with Jackson’s near-completism when it comes to Middle-Earth mythology. But why he chose to excise the death of Saruman from Return of the King, and thus remove Christopher Lee entirely from the proceedings is a mystery. Especially when it contains an absolute master class in shit-talking from King Theoden.
Merry and Pippin Turn Rohan into a Drinking Hall
Despite having four lead hobbits, the Fellowship rarely ever feels hobbit-y. Frodo walks with each step being heavier than the last since the weight of the world, or at least the Precious, bears down on him. Sam follows like a good page nobly behind in those steps, and Merry and Pippin by and large spend huge swaths of time separated or hugging trees. So, it’s great in Return of the King how, if only in passing, we are privy to the duo hobbits turning Edoras into the Shire’s best kind of tavern. It’s silly, it’s fun, and it’s so fitting for the tone of Tolkien—a nice reprieve in the third film to the pastoral purity of the first. Also helpfully, the song doesn’t go on for eight minutes like it would have in the prequel trilogy…
A Drink Before the War
Generally speaking, I didn’t love how Denethor was depicted in Return of the King. An overbearing caricature for most of the film’s running time, he never once displays any nuance. Nevertheless, he was the center of one harrowingly and unforgettable sequence when in his arrogance and stupidity he sends the “disappointing child,” Faramir, to almost certain death out of sheer spite. We don’t see the slaughter; we are only privy to the knowing doom written on Faramir’s brow, as well as all of his men’s faces.
As they ride to perdition, Pippin’s one service is finally utilized by Denethor: He has his hobbit squire sing him a song of sorrow and loss while he absent-mindedly gobbles up cherry tomatoes, spilling blood-red juices all over his mouth. The scene is anything but subtle, and yet the point of old men thriving while young men are dying is agonizingly and honestly clear (especially in 2003). Add in Billy Boyd’s soulful ditty, which is the opposite of a hobbit romp and is indeed an invention by the filmmakers, and it’ll break your heart every time.
The lighting of the beacons
There’s plenty to recommend the lighting of the beacons, but this could very well be the most perfect melding of visuals and music in the entire saga. While beautifully photographed (and offers more of those stunning helicopter shots!), it’s really Howard Shore’s score, which builds and builds for almost two minutes before reaching for the sky.
“They will answer to the king of Gondor!”
For a series that doesn’t skimp on the swordplay, and in a genre that very much relies on the symbolism associated with those weapons, there’s very little “sword porn” in the trilogy. There’s a reason for that. When Elrond presents Anduril, the most important weapon in the saga, to Aragorn, in an otherwise understated scene, audiences finally got the “king and his sword” iconography they had been waiting for.
Gandalf swats Denethor in disgust.
We’ve already voiced our annoyance with Denethor. And while it’s fun to ultimately watch him (literally) go down in flames, it’s the bit where Gandalf puts him in his place with a quick swat from his staff and a withering look of absolute disgust that feels the most satisfying. While Denethor declares the battle lost before it has even started, it’s Gandalf who reminds everyone what’s at stake… and who’s in charge.
Gandalf confronts the Witch King
Speaking of Gandalf, while he may not get the final word with the Witch King (that’s reserved for Eowyn), he sure does get the scariest sequence with him. The fellbeasts are terrifyingly realized cinematic creations, neither dragon nor demon, and this scene is by far the most up close and personal we get with one. Watching Gandalf the White stare down an embodiment of pure evil riding a winged nightmare like that should spark children’s imaginations (for better or worse) for generations.
The Riders of Rohan earn their name
So the Rohirrim can ride horses. So what, right? Any fantasy character worth their 20-sided dice has a horseback riding proficiency in their skillset, so what’s the big…
…Oh. You mean they can just charge right through the orc line and trample the hell out of the enemy like a fearless wave of noble destruction? We stand corrected.
Gollum Turns Frodo Against Sam
At the risk of damaging Frodo’s standing with audiences, Jackson and company had a great success when they added this character wrinkle between the semi-love triangle of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. Gollum and Sam never got along once during the trilogy, but unlike Tolkien, Gollum alienates a delusional Frodo further down the Mt. Doom pit that our ring-bearer has fallen. Frodo turns on Sam when Gollum plants bread crumbs on the “stupid fat hobbit’s” cloak and baits him into a fight.
When Frodo sends Sam away, we know that our hero is truly lost and the quest reaches a nadir far darker than any in the book. It also makes Sam’s return to save Frodo that much more euphoric. Plus, it gives us more Gollum nastiness and that’s only ever a good thing.
Any time There’s a Giant Spider
Shelob is not quite a spider and not quite a cognizant being in Tolkien’s books. How much higher intelligence she has is up for debate, thereby increasing her Lovecraftian otherness. However, Jackson probably made the right call by just turning her into a big old spider for Return of the King. A horror movie director first and foremost, Jackson gets to return to his roots as a schlock auteur who once competed with Sam Raimi for the best horror comedies. Except there is nothing funny about these sequences.
The way Shelob appears out of nowhere and hunts her prey in Frodo probably the most intense moment of the entire cinematic Tolkien pantheon. With Frodo caught in a web with Shelob behind him, and Gollum taunting him in the foreground, it is the stuff of nightmares. It’s so hellish that the momentary reprieve makes her sudden return and biting of Frodo that much more frightening. Jackson has never done suspense as well as these sequences before or since.
Galadriel Gives Frodo a Helping Hand
Frodo is so put upon the entire trilogy that even when his latest hardship is of his own making—sending Sam away—it is still a godsend when he gets a momentary relief. Between spider attacks, Frodo collapses from the misery of it all when Galadriel appears in a vision to him, giving him the last peaceful interlude he would experience until he shows up in Minas Tirith nearly an hour later in the film. I appreciate the ambiguity. Is Galadriel really reaching out via magic to the ringbearer or is he just going crazy about the elf that caught him a little bit smitten? It doesn’t matter; it’s an act of kindness and happiness for a character who has spent half the movie talking to Gollum. Cate Blanchett really is divine when compared to that!
“I am No Man”
I have dinged Tolkien on this list for underwriting his female characters, which is a compliment at best of the text, but he unintentionally did give us this wonderful moment of proto-feminism. The Witch King has defeated Gandalf the White (at least in the extended cut) and has sent Théoden on the path of being reunited with his son. This head ringwraith seems nigh unbeatable when Eowyn, garbed like a man, enters into mortal combat with the beast.
He hisses with all the condescension of Mordor behind him that no man can kill him. Eowyn then removes her helmet to reveal that “I am no man!” This is about as badass a movie one-liner as you can hear, and the fact that it came from a well-groomed Oxford hand makes it all the more amazing. Bye, bye, Witch King.
The Battle of Pelennor Fields is possibly the biggest war scene ever filmed (certainly in fantasy). A case can be made for the urgency of Helm’s Deep being more climactic than Pelennor, but nothing tops the scope of this Gondor throwdown. And one of the most stunning things about this epic duel of fates is that it continues to top itself for over an hour. They have catapults? Well, we have a wizard. Oh, you have Nazgul on dragons? Well we have all of Rohan here on horseback! Wait, where did those giant oliphants come from?
It continues to build and build, causing viewers to forget everything else—Frodo and the One Ring, hapless Arwen dying in Rivendell, and even that Aragorn went to the mountain for help.
So, when Pelennor reaches its grand finale in oneupsmanship again, witnessing Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas disembark from that ship is the happiest of surprises. And it pauses just long enough for viewers to guess what will come next: A green rush of death. You have oliphants? Well, say hello to the Ghost Army. Checkmate.
The Mouth of Sauron
The Mouth of Sauron is one of the more disturbing creations in the LoTR cinematic bestiary. The oversized mouth, diseased and grinning, voiced by Bruce Spence with an unsettlingly cheerful cadence, feels like something that crawled out of Pan’s Labyrinth more than exited the gates of Mordor. If this is the guy you send to put your guests at ease, well, we don’t necessarily need to stay for dinner.
And, yes, we realize that the decapitation is another cinematic concession, but c’mon, you get “I guess that concludes negotiations” out of the deal.
Far more effective than Viggo Mortensen’s serviceable speech about the courage of men, there is the shortest of moments when Aragorn gives his own personal pep talk to the remaining parties of the Fellowship. “For Frodo” is all he has to say for the audience to really get pumped for this final battle. Swords are up, shields are readied, and the entire band of heroes lunges into battle (hobbits first) with a choir humming the Fellowship’s theme. Now that is St. Crispin’s Day worthy!
Frodo’s Moment of Truth
After all of this, after loyal Sam literally carries Frodo to the fires of Mt. Doom, after watching their friends and enemies die around their journey…Frodo still ends up taken by the Ring. No matter how pure Frodo may be, the Ring’s evil is just too powerful, and like Isildur, Frodo just can’t compete.
Perhaps stylized a little too much for some taste, there’s an undeniable shudder when you HEAR Gollum bite Frodo’s finger off, and Gollum’s disturbing dance of victory at being reunited with his Precious is only matched by the look of joy and peace on his face as he’s swallowed by the lava in the mountain. Astin, Wood, and Serkis played this wonderfully.
The Coronation of Aragorn
If this scene doesn’t move you on some level, we’ve got nothing for you. Some claim to have heard DoG editor Mike Cecchini quietly sobbing after viewings, though…
A Drink After the War
Much is fairly made of Return of the King’s multiple endings. We all have our favorites (notably “You bow to no one”), and groan at the excess of it. But it is hard to decide which could be cut. However, one that is often overlooked is how elegantly the movie could have concluded if it was just Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin sitting around a Shire table and quietly sharing a drink. Once Sam gets married, we have to see what happens to Frodo. And ending before they return to the Shire would be giving up too much finality for our small friends, Scouring or no Scouring.
However, the quiet fact that all of them suffer their own battle scars from the war when they arrive home, and that they fail to connect with any of their obliviously giddy neighbors, is a quiet and revelatory moment. Sometimes, you just can’t go home. And like true veterans, all they can knowingly share is their own sacrifice. If one is looking for an elegant point to cut it off before it goes on another 15 minutes, this would have been a sublime grace note.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Erebor Prologue
While the bookends involving elder Bilbo and Frodo seem unnecessary, the traditional prologue detailing some Middle-Earth backstory is wonderfully realized, here. Even for the cynics, for at least a few minutes it appears that we’re back in the same comfortable world from the previous trilogy.
The Introduction of the Dwarves
Viewing this at 48 fps did the scene, the set, and the makeup no favors whatsoever. It may very well be the first epic fantasy sequence that actually ended up looking far better on television than it did on the screen.
That being said, it took Tolkien nearly an entire chapter just to introduce Bilbo’s traveling companions, and the dwarves of the page are far less distinct in visual cues or personality than the dwarves we meet on the screen. While it’s definitely a belching joke too long, the humor and chaos of the scene is far too important and iconic to compress much further. They even manage to get the “that’s what Bilbo Baggins hates” song in without being completely infuriating. It becomes impossible to really distinguish most of these dwarves for the next two films, but the heavy lifting is done here.
Thorin’s origin story
Told in flashback while Richard Armitage gives a trademark steely stare off into the distance, the origin of Thorin Oakenshield is the one moment of dwarf badassery in the saga that isn’t played lightly.
Gandalf the Merciful
“True courage is knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” The beautiful humanism of Tolkien’s stories is illustrated by a single sentence delivered by Ian McKellen. For whatever other excesses the Hobbit films engaged in, it’s moments like these that cut right to the heart of the entire mythology. see also: Gandalf’s later “simple acts of kindness” speech.
The Warg Chase
We’ve met the wargs before, but here, perhaps because our heroes are decidedly more bite-sized, there’s more of a sense of impending danger than we had been treated to in the past. Perhaps to its credit, there are relatively few full-blown action sequences in An Unexpected Journey, so bringing in the bad doggies for one extended chase actually helps put us back in the right frame of mind.
The council of Elrond, Saruman, Galadriel, and Gandalf
While there’s little doubt now that The Hobbit shouldn’t have been able to sustain three films, this initial meeting between four key players from the Lord of the Rings films is played with remarkable subtlety, all things considered, especially when we look at how easy it is for prequels in general to fall into certain traps. It’s difficult to fault four brilliant actors playing off one another, especially when we get to hear Christopher Lee call someone out for dabbling in psychedelic mushrooms!
A Game of Riddles
Is there a more important moment in all of Tolkien’s writings than the battle of wits between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum? This is the moment that sticks with most children from their earliest experiences with The Hobbit. Gollum is made of the stuff of nightmares, and there is mythic significance to any game of riddles where passage and power are at stake.
While this scene was already tackled in amended form in the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring, here we get to see it played out in its entirety, and it’s as perfect a translation from page to screen as any of the best moments from the original trilogy. It helps when you have two actors as gifted as Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis making it happen.
Gandalf and the Eagles to the Rescue
There’s precious few moments of genuine triumph in The Hobbit films, but this is one of them. A wizard riding a giant eagle will never not be cool, especially not when the eagles are grabbing wargs in their talons, dragging them through flames, and then dropping their flaming carcasses from great heights. This paragraph reads like the lyrics to some Icelandic metal song.
For all the explorations of Gandalf’s side story we got in this trilogy, you’d think that maybe, just maybe, we could have found out what it is that Gandalf did for the eagles to put them so in his debt that they swoop in to the rescue every time he sends them a message via butterfly?
While Thorin and Bilbo are characters painted in the broadest possible strokes, Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman are more than up to the task of conveying genuine emotion on a grand scale, and perhaps offering nuance where there might have been none. Thorin’s embrace of Bilbo may not be as emotional as “My friends, you bow to no one,” but it’s perhaps the most honest, emotionally powerful moment in The Hobbit films.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Spiders of Mirkwood
Guillermo del Toro was once the man slated to direct The Hobbit movies, and a fair amount of work was done under his watch. While del Toro would have probably relied more on puppetry, animatronics, and other practical effects than Peter Jackson ultimately did, there are moments here and there that we can’t help but sense Guillermo’s hand in.
The giant spiders in Mirkwood are about as disturbing as Shelob in Return of the King, in part because there are more of them, but there’s also the unsettling three-dimensional aspect of the battle taking place in their web/lair. There’s no extended running montages, nor does the CGI feel particularly lightweight. This is dwarves and a hobbit taking on a slew of icky enemies, and it should give your kids plenty of nightmares.
The Majesty of Smaug
Perhaps the second most iconic moment in The Hobbit is when Bilbo comes face to enormous face with Smaug. Finally the burglar that Gandalf had sold him to the dwarves as, Bilbo has the unenviable task of rooting around in a dragon’s bed of treasure. And when Smaug, voiced by Martin Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch opens one massive eye, all of the storybook potential of the book is suddenly made whole on screen.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The Destruction of Dale
But of course, we can’t get a dragon waking up without a dragon starting some fires, can we? Smaug’s wrath is incurred in full, and while there may be bigger battle scenes in Jackson’s oeuvre, there are no greater examples of wholesale, wanton destruction, and the flight of Smaug is one of the few moments in the entire trilogy where the 3D felt warranted.
The Madness of Thorin
In service of stretching one story out over three movies, The Hobbit films made Bilbo a bit of a bit player in his own movies at times, particularly by the end. Luckily, the other main heroic figure, Thorin Oakenshield was brilliantly portrayed by Richard Armitage, and imbued that character with enough tragic nobility to carry us through.
Thorin’s descent into “dragon sickness” while they searched for the Arkenstone may seem like standard fairy tale stuff, but when he finally has his moment of truth, we can’t help but again feel Guillermo del Toro’s lingering influence in a scene reminiscent of Scrooge McDuck’s (or maybe Donald Trump’s) worst mushroom trip.
The Death of Thorin Oakenshield
Speaking of Thorin’s tragic nobility, it couldn’t be tragic if he survived, could it? While no surprise to fans of the book, and certainly telegraphed throughout The Battle of the Five Armies, when Thorin finally expires, with Bilbo desperately telling him to hold on as the eagles are there for the rescue, it’s a powerful moment, and a wonderful contrast between Martin Freeman’s everyman Bilbo and a royal warrior breathing his last in the presence of a friend.
The Sackville-Baggins auction
Alright, so we never got to see “the scouring of the Shire” at the end of The Return of the King. But at least we’re left with this amusing epilogue from The Hobbit, when Bilbo returns home to find his less than scrupulous cousins gleefully auctioning off his possessions. It’s exactly the light touch that had been absent from roughly the previous four and a half hours of Hobbit-story, and it’s another gentle reminder of the film’s roots.
Did we leave out any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments!
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